By Manoj Joshi
The United States (US) has entered what can be called a new cold war against Russia and China. While this is presented as a contest between democracy and authoritarianism, people aren’t buying it. The obvious reason for the US decision appears to be a desire to maintain its global primacy in the face of the Chinese challenge.
Overall, it can be said that notions of an American decline are premature. The country continues to have a vibrant economy, backed by substantial financial clout and research and development (R&D) prowess, and is demographically comfortable. It also remains the world’s leading military power. However, his soft power has been shaken by developments in his country and his inconsistent behavior globally.
Standard measures of prosperity like gross domestic product (GDP) show that there is little change in the US share over the past forty years as it remains around 25% of global GDP. In 1980, the United States’ share of world GDP was 25.16%; today, forty years later, the proportion is about the same at 24.2%. The United States nearly equals the share of its proportion of global GDP by spending some 27.3% of global spending on R&D compared to 21.9% in China. The continued appeal of the United States as a top international destination for research and education gives it the opportunity to acquire talent from all parts of the world.
Yet, in the eyes of the world, US setbacks — beginning with the war in Vietnam and followed by disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan — have provided space for its rivals to advance.
The real setback for the United States has been in its soft power and it has manifested itself in various ways. A measure of this is the deep political divide in its domestic politics, where polls consistently show that 70% of Republican voters do not see Biden as the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential election. The country’s financial sector was also nearly shaken by the 2008 global financial crisis. As a result, the the wealth of American families has yet to recover of the impact of this event. Income inequality in the United States has increased since 1980 and is greater than in comparable countries. Over time, the country assumed that its superior system of democracy and governance would see it through any competition. However, this system now seems hopelessly stuck. The ability of its political system to operate in a bipartisan manner no longer exists.
Given this situation, the country seems unable to deal with its escalating social problems, ranging from mass shootings and gun violence to chronic poverty, homelessness and drug addiction. This inevitably gave rise to the idea that the United States is in a state of irretrievable decline.
Related to this is America’s wavering approach to globalization. The United States, which remained largely unaffected by World War II, helped shape what is known as the liberal international order. It rests on three pillars: the United Nations system to maintain the international order, the associated agencies to promote health and labor standards, and finally, agencies such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to regulate the global economic system. To face the challenge of the former Soviet Union, the United States also created a global chain of military alliances – North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, South Asian Treaty Organization -Is – of which only the first has survived.
The global trading system created by the United States has been skillfully used by China to emerge first as the factory of the world and then as an ever-growing military power. By focusing on the war on terror and the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has begun to neglect large parts of the world. In the United States, too, political trends have emerged questioning the American global role and the premises of liberal internationalism, which have challenged the fact that the United States pays a disproportionate share for everything – global security and the United Nations system.
This led to the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016 and many of the simmering issues have come to a boil. The Trump administration has focused on a trade war with China, shunned international organizations and pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Worse still, the president has been dismissive of America’s own allies and military partners and demanded that they pay a fair share for their security. And when the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States refused to take global leadership to fight it.
Compared to China, the United States has seen a decline. In terms of purchasing power parity, the Share of the United States in world GDP fell from 50% in 1950 to 14% in 2018, while that of China exceeded it at 18%. China’s population is four times that of the United States and its economy has been growing three times faster. Other areas such as R&D and STEM education are also growing rapidly in China. If current trends are projected 20 years ahead, one can get an idea of future Chinese dominance.
Where once, in the 1950s and 1960s, American aid built Europe and transformed education and agriculture in India and other countries, China has developed the Belt and Road initiative for provide hardware infrastructure across the globe. Although there is a lot of talk about how countries have gotten themselves into a debt trap through Chinese projects, the reality is that the Chinese are the only game in town. Between 2001 and 2018, China has provided loans worth $126 billion to African countries and invested US$41 billion. While the US has been trying to match the Chinese, they don’t have much to show for now. The latest G7 proposals to release US$600 billion remain only on paper.
Maintaining Hegemony: The New Cold War
As the new Cold War looms, the overriding impression is of a lack of coherence in the American response. The Trump administration has spurned Obama’s emphasis on domestic reforms such as the Affordable Care Act as well as the TPP to outperform China on the economic front. He used a variety of means such as tariffs, export control regulations, and restrictions on certain categories of Chinese students to control China. However, he also clearly identified China as the main threat to American hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.
On the other hand, the Biden administration has not yet given an official version of its China policy. But his efforts to make huge public investments in social, infrastructural and environmental programs have failed to overcome the political deadlock in the US Congress.
The Ukrainian War and the Future
Much of this analysis is subject to developments unfolding with the war in Ukraine, but is also vitally dependent on ongoing political developments in the United States. As for the war, it certainly revitalized and strengthened the American alliance system in Europe. But two years later, the possibility of a Trump or a Trumpist in power could call into question the usefulness of alliances and introduce uncertainty and inconsistency into US global policy.
The war in Ukraine, with its “no limits” alliance between Russia and China, poses its own challenges. Where Russia was once an entity of diminishing importance to the United States, it has now emerged as a major distraction capable of derailing the American plan to challenge China in the Indo-Pacific. The structural problems plaguing the United States are obvious. While it remains the world’s greatest military power and its dominance of the financial system, though less complete, is still formidable, now may be the time for the United States to change its view of the world as city on a hill, destined to rule the world.
World hegemony, which it achieved in 1945, remains the key to its global perspective. As long as the United States was the best in the economic and military fields, it was considered logical. But we are at a point where the China’s economy has already overtaken that of the United States and in the next 20 years it could be many times larger, allowing China to match US military spending as well. China has its own vision – born out of its own world position in history – that it is the Middle Kingdom.
Whether the United States can maintain its current hegemonic status is debatable. But no doubt it will remain a major, if not dominant, world power well into the future. However, to retain this status and compete successfully with China needs to relaunch its soft power, based on the attractiveness of its social, political and economic system. She must become a leader as much on issues of security and trade as on women’s rights, environmental protection, the fight for democracy and racial equality. He already has a dominance formula in his alliance system, but he needs to make them more transparent and achievable. More than that, it must find a way to live with other centers of power like China, a path that does not necessarily depend on its global hegemony. The world is learning the hard way about the global consequences of the war in Ukraine. A US-China conflict, possibly involving Taiwan, could have even more serious repercussions.